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One employee's loss is another employee's gain

By Nicholas Gruen - posted Tuesday, 30 August 2005

The next wave of government propaganda is upon us. Super choice one day, industrial relations the next. The government is spending our money telling us about its great new plan to further deregulate the labour market. In brief, it wants to provide less generous indexation of award wages and abolish rules against unfair dismissal for firms with fewer than 100 employees.

We can thank the Keating Government for the first really shameless government funded party political advertising with its advertisements for its own job programs in the mid 1990s. I guess we can all be thankful that John Howard took such a principled stand against it when he was Opposition leader.

It turns out that the principle he was affirming wasn’t against government funding of party political advertisements. It was just against government funding of the other party’s political advertisements. Silly me. Now the government’s made things clear, it makes perfect sense.


There’s no longer any pretence that the advertisements we are now seeing are not party political. They have been presented as an active response to the unions’ advertisements. And they’re not in support of any existing government program. Not only isn’t the plan legislated, there isn’t even any draft legislation.

It’s a new political low but there’s not a lot of genuine outrage about, because people’s outrage muscles are tired. They’ve just got used to lower standards. And so public behaviour and public expectations follow each other downward looking for new lows - like this.

With views like this you’ll be expecting me to bag the government’s new IR plan. But the more I think about it, the less upset I am that we’re relaxing the rules of unfair dismissal.

First there are the practical problems. Most obviously prohibiting unfair dismissal creates lots of opportunities to “game” the system. Once the lawyers get involved, and the affected parties begin to anticipate the lawyers, regulating against unfair dismissal becomes bogged down in bureaucracy and comes to reward opportunism.

I don’t know about you, but in all but the most egregious cases, if I were a judge deciding an unfair dismissal case I’d never be too sure what the real truth was. I’m often at a loss to work out who was the “real culprit” when my kids fight over what TV program to watch. And how often does a football umpire get it wrong, rewarding the initial aggressor in some scrap on the field - because he only sees the retaliation? It’s no different in a courtroom.

Let me put the same point very differently. Outside of close family and friendship, the employment relation is one of the closest relationships we have. Do we really do ourselves a favour by getting lawyers involved when one of the parties wants out?


Fault-based divorce sought to prevent “unfair dismissal” from a marriage. In the 1970s we didn’t suddenly become blasé about the suffering brought about by adultery and betrayal. But we did decide that legal fault-finding created more pain than it healed. Perhaps more important still we couldn’t see much sense in forcing someone to stay in a marriage if they didn’t want to be there.

That’s how I feel about unfairly dismissed workers. The boss has treated them with contempt. They’ll be better off moving on.

But there’s an even better reason for consigning “unfair dismissal” to the deregulatory dustbin - along with tariffs, the two airline policy and the six o’clock swill.

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First published in The Courier-Mail on July 27, 2005.

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About the Author

Dr Nicholas Gruen is CEO of Lateral Economics and Chairman of Peach Refund Mortgage Broker. He is working on a book entitled Reimagining Economic Reform.

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